Thursday, 22 April 2010

My Dongle-ong

Dongle. It sounds rude. It even, if you squint and have a dirty mind, look rude. A bit. Or at least looks like it could have rude applications.

But anyway, dongles: the means by which one connects to the internet free of the shackles of landline oppression. And more importantly, in the case of my girlfriend and I, free of the £125 charge required of British Telecom to connect our flat's landline. Since we're only going to be living here for six months, we deemed it an extravagance in the face of no-strings-attached mobile broadband, although if it turns out that said net connection is not workable, we may give in and pay up. Still, a quick 10-man poke-Noth-with-sticks last night gave me hope that dongle-net will at least be workable: pings in the region of 300—500ms, but no lag spikes, no disconnects, no freezing. No Ventrilo either, since I didn't want to push my luck. Guild raiding without Vent is weird.

It seems we are quite fortunate in that we live in an area of strong 3G mojo – the Three "3Connect" program informs me my connection is 5-out-of-5-bars HSDPA, which I gather is the best available.

One of the downsides of dongling is although it's only £15 a month, there is a rather tight-fisted 5GB monthly data limit. I am informed by a guildie that WoW will account for 1.8 of those gigabytes, so that's a relief. The other downside is that the dongle only is only beholden to my computer. In order to get her ladyship's computer connected, either I'll have to perform some connection-sharing theurgy, or she'll have to get her own dongle, and pay her own £15 a month. To be honest, I doubt a single connection would be able to cope with the force of two data streams surging through it, so it's looking likely we'll be going with Plan B. On balance it still works out cheaper than getting the landline connected, even accounting for the lower monthly cost of such an earthbound link.

And hey, it's only ("only") six months. We'll be back on a real net connection just in time for Cataclysm.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Photography and Screenshots

As I mentioned in my first Worldview post, one of my hobbies is photography. I've been doing it for around 8 years now (it seems weird saying that, as it doesn't feel anywhere near that long. Makes me feel old) and I've used assorted different types of camera from basic point-and-shoots with no manual controls, up to DSLR+lens combos that cost more than my car (which is to say, about £1100. I have an old car).

However, despite the differences in technique when using these various cameras, certain important things remain constant: you are looking out fully immersed in the environment, with all your senses in use, feeling the world around you. The process of capturing a two-dimensional image in such a situation generally involves looking at a small rectangle onto which is projected said image, then waiting for the right moment at which to trip the shutter, freezing and storing that small slice of time.

Photography also has some common physical constraints across the board, though they vary in extent depending on the camera and lens (and film) used. Contrast can be a problem, especially on sunny days or in dark rooms with few light sources. Low light levels generally mean slower shutter speeds, which can mean blur due to camera shake or subject movement.

One of the biggest constraints is also the one that for many people inspires the photography in the first place: you have to actually be there in the right place at the right time (and looking in the right direction). Depending on the person, photography falls somewhere on spectrum that ranges from "snapshot of where I was" to "work of art" (and a picture can be both at once, but let's not complicate matters). In other words, for many people the photography is secondary to the experience of going somewhere, a record to remind them of the time. For some, the photography is the whole point of going to a place; the journey there is a relatively minor thing. And, of course, there are all the shades in between.

The point is, to take a photo you have to go to a place, and once there you experience it with all your senses. Naturally, people emphasise various sensory aspects differently - my brother, for example, is more likely to remember the sounds of things than what they look like. He is also a far better musician than I'll ever be.

And so we come to Screenshots, and given the above, I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this. Azeroth and Outland are virtual worlds (no, really), meaning the physical limitations of photography don't apply to them. In fact, to get the effects of long shutter speeds, contrast exceeding the limitations of the capture medium, or artefacts like film grain, these things have to be deliberately simulated. Limitations in camera focal length are arbitrarily fixed. Heck, even the mathematically perfect rectilinear projection used in pretty much every 3D game ever is a simulation of how things look in photographs.

Then of course, in WoW, you generally experience the world visually through a rectangle 17-24 inches diagonal, and aurally through either small desktop speakers, or through headphones. You cannot feel, smell or taste Azeroth. You are not there. Furthermore, the real world is really rather large, meaning long travel times, meaning time, effort and, often, money, is required to get around. As a result, you have a strong emotional investment in the place you are going to.

By contrast, Azeroth is tiny. Travel from one end of the world to the other takes half an hour at most, and is mostly a passive experience (sitting on a mythical flying creature while you go and make a cup of tea). When you do have to manually direct your avatar in the world, you don't get tired or out of breath, your legs and back and shoulders do not ache, and you can summon a mount out of thin air and move far faster than anyone on foot, or, if you're in Outland or Northrend, fly without the hassle and limitations of an aeroplane or other unwieldy real-life flying machine.

The upshot of this is much less emotional attachment to places in the game. You spent no effort to get there, so getting and being there means less. You don't feel the world anywhere near as fully, so it's less memorable. The latter point is compounded with the re-use of assets in the game, so once you've seen the caves in Elwynn Forest, you've more or less seen the caves in the rest of the Eastern Kingdoms, and they all kind of blur together into one meta-cave. Even within a zone, most of the landscape features will have few variations, so you end up seeing the same four trees everywhere you go in Azshara. The real world, on the other hand, is of course infintely variable – every place is totally different to every other place.

Lest I seem overly critical of the world Blizzard have created, I should make it clear that this weaker emotional attachment to places is can arguably be a positive thing for creating interesting screenshots. If you climbed Everest and took some pictures from the summit, those pictures would mean a lot to you regardless of whether they were "good" or not: you put an enormous amount of time and effort into getting there, and the simple act of standing on the summit of the world's highest mountain is quite achievement enough. In your euphoria and exhaustion your state of mind would be much less conducive to making good pictures, as you'd have so many other things to think about (even the simple act of breathing would require some concentration). As a result, you might well come home with what to anyone else look like rather generic pictures of some mountains. It's a common mistake of beginning photographers to assume that a picture that was hard to get, such as one taken from the summit of Everest, is one that people will want to see. On the whole, people don't care, and rightly so – all they can respond to is what's in front of them.

Since in WoW getting to places is so comparatively easy, you're much more free to concentrate on what things look like. Moreover, you are basically looking through a camera's-eye view of the world the entire time, so there's no disconnect between what you eyes see and what the virtual camera sees. There are far fewer distractions, too – although the world only fills a quite small portion of your overall field of view, everything outside the bounds of your monitor screen is fairly static, so your brain pretty much ignores it. With headphones on, music off and ambient sounds turned up, you can indeed become quite immersed in the world, just in a different way to how you are immersed in the real world. With the UI turned off ( [Alt] + [Z], if you didn't know), the world is almost pure visual stimulus, so your response to it is likewise going to be highly visual; you enter a peculiar state of mind where you are focussed near-exclusively on the appearance of that rectangle in front of you. So long as you are comfortable with movement and camera control in game, you barely need to think about such things, and it's only when the game forces you to concentrate on them, like when you get stuck on a low fence, that you ever think about them.

I don't know whether this state of mind comes as freely to others as it does to me. Perhaps my years of photography have trained me to enter it more easily. It's actually quite similar when I do street photography: senses other than sight are pushed to the back, and I see the world much more as shapes, compositions and contrasts. When I'm wandering around a zone in "screenshot mode", I try to dampen any thoughts about quests and lore and such, and instead just see.

When it comes to pruning, again, it is easier to separate the good images from the merely ok ones, as there aren't really any feelings attached to any of them regarding the effort involved to get them, since they were all easy to get (usually – there are exceptions, like if I was to do a Worldview on Ulduar or Icecrown Citadel or other high-level instance. I couldn't very well run about merrily taking snaps until the place was cleared first, which would of course require a lot of time and effort).

That's not to say it doesn't take a long time, incidentally – when you've spent two hours waltzing around Azshara pressing the screenshot key whenever you see something even a little interesting (occasionally multiple times with slightly different framing), you end up with 150 images to sort through and try to reduce down to 25 at most. Then they need to be arranged into as cohesive an order as possible so that they look more like a collection and less like a disjointed array of vaguely similar-looking pictures. Still, this point applies just the same to photography as it does to screenshots, particularly with photoshoots.

In the end, photography and making-screenshots-in-WoW (fairly rolls of the tongue, doesn't it?) are quite different activities. You still need the same sense of aesthetics for both, as for any visual medium, but the actual processes each have their own challenges and benefits.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Addon: NeedToKnow

Need To Know is a nice small and uncomplicated addon that lets you have up to 4 groups of 5 bars wherever you want on screen, to show spell cooldowns, DoTs/HoTs, buffs/debuffs and totems.

My central UI setup for my DK in frost tank spec. Click to see a slightly larger version.

The bars NTK shows always appear in the same place when active, and disappear otherwise. Taking the above screenshot as an example, once Anti-Magic Shell comes off cooldown (thus causing the bar to disappear), the Unbreakable Armor and Icebound Fortitude bars would not move downwards to fill the empty space. This helps to maintain a consistent mental map of where things are.

Bars are coloured manually - the default is medium grey. Each bar can optionally show an icon for its related spell, buff etc.

The Frost Fever and Blood Plague bars are tracking their respective DoTs on my current target. When set to Buff or Debuff mode, the bars can be set to track either the player, your target, your pet, and so on.

Another handy feature that I only read about as I was writing this post is that you can set bars to track multiple buffs/debuffs: it shows the remaining time for the shortest, then when that expires moves to the next one. Another possible use for this, although I've not tried it, is loading a bar with all important vehicle abilities you're going to encounter, so for example in Oculus you can have a single bar for tracking Leeching Poison stacks (green drake), Shock Charge (amber drake) or Evasion Charge (red drake). You could even further load this bar with other stuff like pyrite stacks for the Flame Leviathan encounter in Ulduar.

That's more or less it really: it's a lightweight addon that does one particular thing, and does it well.

Here's a brief explanation of things in the screenshot that aren't related to NTK:

  • the health bars (and target buffs/debuff icons) are by Pitbull 3.0
  • the RS, GCD and Mind Freeze "indicators" are really just 3 buttons on a small Bartender4 bar that isn't clickable
    • the "GCD indicator" is actually just a button for a stamina scroll
    • I have Rune Strike macro'd to all my main attacks, so most of the time I don't need to manually activate it. However, if all runes are on cooldown and I only have 20 RP, the Rune Strike indicator lets me know when the ability is ready so I can use it manually
    • the Mind Freeze indicator serves as both a range check, a cooldown monitor and an availability check, all in one handy icon
  • the runes display and runic power bar are by Magic Runes
  • the numbers in the top-right are MikScrollingBattleText. I should really make the crit display a bit smaller

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Worldview: Feralas

The lush green forest of Feralas lies in stark contrast to the adjacent dry, baking zone of Thousand Needles. It is a lush forest home to a wide variety of wildlife, including harpies, hippogryphs, gorillas and bears. It is also the location of Dire Maul, one of the great level 60 5-man instances.

The border between Feralas and Thousand Needles.

The characteristic tall rock spires that give Thousand Needles its name also continue some way into Feralas.

The small lake below the Tauren village of Camp Mojache.

The Lariss Pavillion, north-east of Camp Mojache.

In the distance, a village of the Grimtotem tribe of Taurens, who are not part of the Horde.

A waterfall cascading down the mountains that separate Feralas and the Tauren starting area of Mulgore.

The entrance to Dire Maul, guarded by ogres.

Looking west along the outer wall of Dire Maul.

Moving further west, we approach the cliffs overlooking the sea.

On the path leading to northern Feralas, a bridge over another waterfall.

There are more ruins in northern Feralas, many of them occupied by harpies. Northern Feralas is more open than the rest of the zone, and not so gloomy.

The blazing sun makes quite a difference compared to the darkness one emerges from when travelling north.

Ruins around Oneiros.

Some more ruins. There are many patrols of level 62 elite dragonkin in this area…

…and in the centre of Dream Bough sits (occasionally) Taerar, guarding one of the entrances to the Emerald Dream.

Looking north up the lake surrounding Dream Bough.

The Ruins of Ravenwind. These also are infested with harpies - their nests are the rough ball shapes hanging from trees and parts of the ruins.

Heading south again, looking down on the dock where one may catch the boat to Feathermoon Stronghold, a Night Elf town on Sardor Isle.

Looking back up at the cliffs from the coast.

Heading west towards the dock at Feathermoon Stronghold.

Looking south at Sardor Isle, with the Isle Of Dread in the background.

Looking north towards Sardor Isle from some ruins on the Isle Of Dread. These ruins are occupied by a tribe of Naga, whilst the central valley of the island is full of wandering level 60-62 elite chimaera.

The ruins on the south coast of Sardore Isle.

Heading back into southeastern Feralas.

The Ruins of Isildien in the High Wilderness area, populated by ogres.

And that's Feralas! As you can see, it's very green and lush (except for the southern part of Sardor Isle, which is more grey and sickly), and one of the first zones I discovered that really made me stop questing and just look at it. In fact, the zone has affected me so much the colour scheme of my blog is inspired by it (and the header image is a crop of the Lariss Pavillion image).

I briefly skirted around Dire Maul in this post, and I do plan to do a full session(?) on it soon – there really are a lot of interesting things to see in the instance!

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Addon: Satrina Buff Frames

A quick post to mention a handy little addon I found the other day: Satrina Buff Frames. In a nutshell, it lets you customise the layout, size and grouping of your buff/debuff display. Here's how I have mine set up:

Short buffs are ones lasting less than 3 minutes. I might change this at some point to "less than 1 minute". The different colouring on the debuff timers is to show their type (magic, disease, etc.). I've since changed it so the debuff name now appears above the icon, too.

Another handy thing about SBF is it can show you who's given you a particular buff (or debuff, but that's usually obvious) in the tooltip.

All in all a very useful addon!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Worldview: Azshara

Azshara, a place so seldom travelled I had to look it up to make sure I'd spelt it correctly. It's really a shame there aren't more quests in this zone, as it's a very pretty and scenic place, especially in the evening. Mind you, even during the middle of the day it seems to be late afternoon in Azshara, with an almost perpetually setting sun, as if the zone is further north than it actually is.

The zone is populated with quite a variety of wildlife, including stags, hippogryphs, naga, murlocs and, in the southern region, many elite stone giants.

As usual, you can click the images to see a larger (960px wide) version.

The road entering Azshara from Ashenvale, from the west.

A path leading up to an Alliance base in the hills of south-west Azshara.

A strange rock formation atop a hill.

A stag wandering around on a hill.

A rocky outcrop at the top of a hill. There are lots of hills in Azshara.

Looking north towards the mountains that divide Azshara and Winterspring.

The gates at the Azshara side of Timbermaw Hold.

Ruined archway and a ghost at the border of Azshara and Ashenvale.

A waterfall cascading down from the mountains bordering Winterspring and Azshara.

Ruins along the coast, and some Naga buildings.

The ruins actually go quite far out to sea, and there are many giants wandering around below the surface.

The temple of Arkkoran, off the northern peninsula.

These rockpools are scattered all around the coast of the southern peninsula.

The beach at the far eastern tip of the north peninsula, leading up to higher ground.

Looking back down towards the above location.

The Temple of Zin-Malor, in the ruins of Eldarath, in central Azshara.

Naga occupying the the Temple of Zin-Malor. The temple has the same layout as the Temple of the Moon in Darnassus.

More of the ruins of Eldarath.

The entire zone of Azshara seems to be in a perpetual autumn.

A troll turned into stone by one of the giants. The giant to the left in this picture is Monnos the Elder.

Naga patrolling the dead land surrounding the Ravencrest Monument.

The legs, head and sword are all that remains of the Monument.

The view north along the coast from the Monument.

And that concludes this little view of Azshara! I haven't yet decided which zone to do next week – Feralas is certainly high on the list, as is Dire Maul.